Raising the Age of Juvenile Court Jurisdiction

By Rich Williams | Vol . 23, No. 39 / October 2015

NCSL NewsDid you know?

  • In most states, 17 is the upper age of youth under a state’s juvenile court jurisdiction; nine set the age at 16 or younger.
  • New York and North Carolina have the lowest ages of juvenile court jurisdiction, set at 15.
  • Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and New Hampshire have raised the age of youths under the juvenile courts’ jurisdiction in the last six years.

State legislatures are evaluating approaches to juvenile crime and delinquency that result in improved outcomes for kids at lower public costs. Recent trends in juvenile justice legislation reflect a shift toward less punitive policies influenced by an evolving understanding of adolescent development and youth criminal culpability. The change in approach has been spurred by a growing body of research and case law that attribute much of juvenile criminal behavior to emotional, mental, physiological and interpersonal immaturity. The research also asserts that these factors mean juveniles have a greater capacity for reform than adults.

Restoring jurisdiction over young arrestees to the juvenile court is one way legislation has distinguished juvenile from adult offenders. During the past six years, lawmakers in four states have raised the age of youth under juvenile courts’ jurisdiction. The goal is to ensure that the cases of all those under age 18 start in juvenile court and that decisions about rehabilitation and treatment for older youth are in the hands of the juvenile court.

According to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the age of juvenile court jurisdiction is the oldest age at which a juvenile court has original jurisdiction over a person for violating the law. For example, if 17 is the upper age of jurisdiction in a state’s juvenile court, then the court loses jurisdiction when the person turns 18.

State Action

All states, by statute, provide a maximum age for juvenile court jurisdiction over youth charged with a law violation who were younger than age 18 at the time of the offense, arrest or referral to court. Currently, 41 states set the age of juvenile court jurisdiction at 17. Seven states—Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin—set the age at 16, and two states—New York and North Carolina—set the age at 15. Over the last six years, four states have raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction. Connecticut raised the age from 15 to 17 beginning in 2009, and full implementation started in 2012. Massachusetts raised the age from 16 to 17 in 2013, and Illinois and New Hampshire both raised the age from 16 to 17 in 2014.

Proponents of “raise-the-age” legislation believe young people should be tried in juvenile court to ensure that they are not sentenced to adult prisons and that they have access to more age-appropriate services and placement options to meet their specialized needs. They argue that the legal system should treat children as children, not as adults, based on the latest neurological, social and behavioral science research and analysis that distinguish juveniles from adult offenders. Research also has found that juveniles in adult prisons experience higher rates of physical and sexual abuse and suicide, and are less likely to be rehabilitated than those in juvenile facilities.

Those opposed to raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction are concerned it will result in increased costs and hamper courts’ ability to appropriately punish serious crimes committed by young people. Victims of serious juvenile crimes and their families also often want the legal system to hold offenders accountable in the adult system.

Before enacting its raise-the-age legislation, the Connecticut legislature commissioned the Juvenile Jurisdiction Planning and Implementation Committee to study the issue. The committee’s report provided several recommendations, including incorporating 16- and 17-year-olds into Connecticut’s juvenile justice system. It also provided administrative services and budgetary guidance to facilitate effective implementation. Between 2007 and 2014, juvenile court referrals decreased by 21 percent, and the re-arrest rate for juvenile probationers dropped from 51 percent to 44 percent. In addition, in each of the fiscal years from 2010 to 2013, the costs associated with raise-the-age legislation were significantly less than the budgeted amount. Overall spending on juvenile justice declined from $139 million in 2001-2002 to $137 million in 2011-2012, despite adding more youths to the system.

New York and North Carolina considered bills in 2015 to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 15 to 17. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order in 2014 appointing the Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice to develop a plan to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction and make other recommendations to improve outcomes for youth and promote public safety. The commission’s report provided 38 recommendations, including raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 15 to 17, and informed legislative debate on the issue in 2015. Although no legislation was enacted in 2015, the governor’s office said it would take executive actions to transfer 16- and 17-year-olds out of state prisons and into separate facilities.

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